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A New York-based group that backed last year's charter school ballot question has paid more than $425,000 to Massachusetts as part of a campaign finance settlement announced Monday.
The civil forfeiture by Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy (FESA) is the largest in the 44-year history of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
Investigators say the group raised more than $15 million from individuals and then contributed it to the Great Schools Massachusetts Ballot Question Committee in a manner intended to disguise the true source of the money. The money represented 70 percent of the $21.7 million reported received by the charter school committee.
The question, which would have raised the state cap on charter schools, failed.
Families for Excellent Schools CEO Jeremiah Kittredge said the organization believed it complied with all laws.
The contributors included Board of Elementary and Secondary Education Chair Paul Sagan, who gave nearly a half-million dollars. Sagan previously has acknowledged a $100,000 donation to a separate pro-charter school ballot question group.
Last year, Republican Gov. Charlie Baker dismissed critics of Sagan's $100,000 donation, calling the criticism "a nothing-burger."
Baker, a longtime supporter of charter schools, said last year that Sagan sought and won the approval of the state Ethics Commission before making the donation.
Baker on Monday again defended Sagan and a second administration official -- Secretary of Technology Services and Security Mark Nunnelly, who gave $275,000 to FESA -- saying they "complied with all state laws with respect to this."
Asked if he had previously been aware of Sagan's nearly $500,000 contribution, Baker said: "I don't know off the top of my head."
Sagan issued a written statement Monday saying, "I am a dedicated supporter of all of our public schools, and I made a personal contribution to Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy last year in good faith."
In an ethics disclosure filed September, 2, 2016, Sagan said he "contributed personal funds to educational and political organizations, including organizations that are advocating a position on Question 2" -- the charter school question -- but did not indicate how much or to which organization.
Nunnelly said in a written statement that "for 25 years, my wife and I have been dedicated supporters of Massachusetts public schools and all they do to maintain our position as the national leader in public education."
Many of the other donors to FESA were in the finance sector. Boston hedge fund manager Seth Klarman contributed the most of any single donor: $3 million.
Complete and accurate disclosure of campaign activity is the cornerstone of the campaign finance law, said Michael Sullivan, director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance.
"Massachusetts voters deserve to know the identity of all those who attempt to influence them before Election Day," Sullivan said.
He said the investigation concluded Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy was actually a ballot question committee and was required to organize and disclose its donors in a timely or accurate manner -- something the group did not do.
Kittredge said the group decided to resolve the matter so it could move ahead.
"Though we believe we complied with all laws and regulations during the campaign, we worked closely with OCPF to resolve this matter so we could move forward with our mission of working alongside families desperate for better schools," he said.
As part of the agreement, FESA agreed to dissolve as a 501(C)(4) social welfare organization. And Families for Excellent Schools, a 501 (C)(3), agreed not to fundraise or solicit in Massachusetts or engage in any election-related activity in the state for four years.
The previous record payment to the Office of Campaign and Political Finance was $185,000 in 2016.
This article was originally published on September 11, 2017.
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